One of the jurors involved in the acquittal of Richard Tuite, a mentally-ill transient who spent eight years behind bars for the 1998 slaying of an Escondido girl, said serving on the retrial jury was a “tremendous burden” due to how many lives were impacted by the complicated case.
Visibly emotional, Peggy Chaplin, known in court as Juror No. 1, briefly spoke about her feelings on the case. On Friday, jurors returned a verdict for Tuite of not guilty of voluntary manslaughter, not true of using a deadly weapon, in the killing of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe.
Chaplin said serving on the jury was very difficult. Despite the verdict, she said the jury feels extremely saddened for the Crowe family.
“All of us were aware of what a huge responsibility we had – just right from the very beginning, and we never lost sight of that, how much we were being asked to decide,” said Chaplin.
Outside the courtroom, following the reading of the verdict, Chaplin was comforted by a fellow juror, Terri Para, known as Juror No. 4.
“It was heartbreaking to watch [Stephanie’s] family having to testify,” said Chaplin, holding back tears. “We can honestly say that we never, ever lost sight of the fact that they have suffered a huge tragedy.”
The 15-year-old case of Stephanie Crowe’s slaying has been filled with twists and turns.
The young girl was brutally stabbed nine times in her bad in her family’s Escondido home. She collapsed and died in her bedroom doorway, and her bloodied body was discovered on Jan. 21, 1998.
In 2004, Tuite – a transient seen in the Crowe family’s neighborhood around the time of Stephanie’s murder – was convicted in the death of the girl. Investigators said witnesses had reported seeing Tuite walking through the Escondido neighborhood, entering homes through unlocked doors.
In 2012, a federal appeals court voided Tuite’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
During the retrial, jurors heard from many of Stephanie Crowe’s family members including her mother, Cheryl Crowe, her sister Shannon Dehesa, and her brother, Michael Crowe.
Michael was initially arrested in and charged in his sister’s murder. His friends, Aaron Houser and Joshua Treadway, were also initially deemed potential suspects.
A judge later threw out those charges levied against Michael and his friends, ruling they were based on coerced confessions of teenagers.
Ultimately, Michael was ruled factually innocent in the case.
Still, retrial jurors heard the confession taped in 1998 of Treadway confessing to the murder, along with the defense team’s theory that Michael, Treadway and Houser were responsible for Stephanie’s death.
Despite that evidence concerning Michael and his friends, both Chaplin and Para agreed that the retrial jury never honed in on them as suspects, saying the jury was never there to decide their fate, but rather the fate of Tuite.
“The boys were not on trial. This was not a trial looking at them, it was Richard Tuite that was on trial,” said Chaplin. “We were to be judging by the evidence presented in the courtroom and only as it related to Richard Tuite.”
In the end, Tuite’s attorney, Brad Patton, said he and his client were very happy with the verdict.
“Richard was emotional, as it related to this. It’s been a long time,” Patton said. “He’s a quiet person – that’s his personality – but he was very emotional as it related to this verdict and he’s very excited to get back with his family.”
Patton said Tuite’s family, including her sister, Kerri Licon, mother and stepfather, all plan to provide support for Tuite and take him in once he’s released from jail.
“Richard will have a normal life, with his family,” the attorney added.
A sheriff's department official told NBC 7 Tuite will remain in jail over the weekend and will likely be released Monday, as his release paperwork is still being processed.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said that once the court order of release is received, Tuite will be processed at the California Institute for Men in Chino, Calif., where he was last held. There, officials will have up to five days to process and release Tuite.
Patton believes Tuite was found not guilty because of two main points.
“There was no evidence that Richard Tuite ever entered the Crowe house at all, and the fact that there was a very valid confession made by Treadway and Michael Crowe,” said Patton.
“I believe this whole thing was an injustice. Without question, I have always believed very strongly that Richard Tuite did not commit this offense,” he added.
Like the jurors, Patton said he too feels for the Crowe family.
“This is the greatest tragedy a family could possibly ever encounter, no question about that. My heart goes out to them, as to the circumstances and what they’ve had to deal with, and what they’ve had to live through in this case. I hope they’re able to move on and live a productive and meaningful life,” the attorney said.
For their part, the Crowe family was angry over Tuite’s acquittal Friday.
Stephanie’s mother told NBC 7 it’s only a matter of time before Richard Tuite kills again. She still believes he is not innocent.
“I’m sure [the jury] will regret their verdict once he kills somebody else. It’s only a matter of time. So lock your doors," she warned. “He’s already killed my daughter. It’s just a matter of time before he does it to someone else’s child.”